Now in their eighties and living in Calgary, Zan and Abe Wiseman are Jewish brothers from Winnipeg. Although it’s the 1980s, the two spend much of their time kvetching and reminiscing like some 1920s Borscht Belt vaudeville duo. Zan is undergoing psychotherapy with the beautiful “lady doctor” Zelda, and we eavesdrop on their conversations. Zan also provides flashbacks to earlier sessions with another psychotherapist, Jack. Abe, meanwhile, chats about Zan with his beloved wife Dolly, who has been in a coma for many years and will likely never recover. Abe’s touching monologues are among the most memorable elements of Dave Margoshes’ new novel.
Peppered with Yiddish slang, the brothers’ dialogue is funny and snappy, though sometimes the corniness can be grating, descending into stereotype. The purpose of all the speechifying is to tell the life story of Zan, a self-described “failed novelist.” He did write a successful novel in the 1930s, but for the next half-century focused on his love life – he keeps forgetting the number of wives he had – and on his association with the Communist party.
Despite a plot that is all talk, Wiseman’s Wager is, for the most part, delightful, keeping readers wondering what outrageous story Zan and Abe will come up with next. By the book’s end, we have been given a portrait of Zan that is full and complex. We also get a group portrait of Communists and assorted rabble-rousers who flourished in Winnipeg before the Second World War, and who were responsible for some of the most volatile politics in the country.
With Wiseman’s Wager, the prolific Margoshes has done for Winnipeg something like what Mordecai Richler did for Montreal. Zan Wiseman is no Duddy Kravitz, but it is easy to imagine these two characters hatching one crazy scheme or another while huddled over a restaurant table somewhere.